A look back: Newell had to re-make the roster for UALR's 1986 NCAA run

Copyright 2006 Maddie's Daddy Productions
Chapter V: Talent
2011 marks the 25th
anniversary of UALR's
upset of Notre Dame in
the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Coach Mike Newell is being
inducted into the UALR
Athletics Hall of Fame on
January 29. BTH takes a look
back at 1986 with Jeffrey
Slatton's book, written in 2006
   Not long after arriving on campus, Newell knew he had bigger personnel problems than he first suspected. Five players either decided not to return or were asked not to. He knew others needed to go.
   Center Ezelle Rivers graduated and Newell weeded out guards Jeff Brown, Richard Robinson, Selwyn Davis and David Farber.
   “We came in here and set goals for ourselves to do some things over a three-to-four-year period,” Newell said. “It will take three-to-four years to get the program where we want it to go.”
   It’s possible UALR’s dream team could have been even more talented than it ended up being.
   Future NBA player Scottie Pippen, who was playing at the University of Central Arkansas, which is located about 30 miles from Little Rock in Conway, walked into Newell’s office one day and said he wanted to transfer.
Pippen and UALR guard Myron Jackson went to high school together in Hamburg, Arkansas, and were still friendly.
   “That was Myron’s homeboy,” Newell said.
   For Pippen, who had gone from unheralded walk-on to star at UCA, which was a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school at the time, it was a chance at the limelight that Newell was building.
   But something didn’t seem right. And in what Newell calls one of the two biggest mistakes he made while at UALR, he told Pippen to return to UCA.
   “I called [UCA Coach] Don Dyer and told him what had transpired. I didn’t want him going anywhere else. I told him you better get over here and get him. He’s on my campus and wants to come to school here,” Newell said. “I wouldn’t do that over again.”
   Newell wouldn’t know it at the time but Pippen would become one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time and a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
   After passing on Pippen, Newell continued remaking the roster during his first year at Little Rock. He eventually would keep only one of Kestenbaum’s recruits:
- Myron Jackson (6-3, senior guard, Hamburg, Arkansas)
   Playing at Hamburg, he was an Arkansas high school All-Star. He started as a freshman with the Trojans and play-by-play broadcaster Max Morgan used to call him “My My” during broadcasts.
   After being used as an off guard and rebounded during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jackson came into his own as a junior. Newell saw the potential and gave him a more primary role in the offense. He averaged 9.7 points and was a definite threat to shoot the ball from anywhere on the perimeter.
   Jackson was fast and silky smooth with the ball. But he was best away from the ball, darting out from behind a screen to hit the fade-away 15-footer. He was money on that shot.
   And when teams tried to run junk defenses against the Trojans, he was adept at busting it up. He would run baseline-to-baseline, shaking his defender and hitting jump shots.
   “Myron was a very good athlete, a hell of an athlete,” teammate Michael Clarke said.
   Newell had to make the most of his time as he signed his first class for the 1984-1985 season. He needed players -- and some good ones as the NCAA deadline of May 15 approached for signing players to a National Letter of Intent.
   In a state of desperation, Newell placed a phone call that morning to former South Alabama assistant coach Drayton Miller, who didn’t go to Auburn when Cliff Ellis resigned to take the head coaching position a few weeks earlier.
   “I just asked him if there were any players down there,” Newell said.
   “Yeah, there might be a few,” said Miller, who was trying to get the coaching job at Mobile’s Spring Hill College, an NAIA school, and had been keeping tabs on the locals. “Can you get a flight today?”
   Newell thought about it for about a second before heading to the airport. He arrived in Mobile that afternoon and was headed for the local recreation center. Miller was there, along with about a dozen kids, who were playing a pick-up game.
   “Right there was Pete Myers, Ken Worthy, Michael Clarke and a kid named Chris Dozier,” Newell said. “I signed them all. Well, Pete Myers didn’t sign until about 15 minutes before midnight, but I signed them all.
   Dozier never made it to UALR. But the other three did. Worthy was Myers’ cousin and Clarke was their best friend. They played together at Mobile’s Lillie B. Williamson High School but never won the Alabama State Championship. All three went to Faulkner State junior college. They didn’t win a championship there either.
   It’s probable the three would have ended up starring for Spring Hill had they not decided to go to UALR.
- Pete Myers (6-6, senior, forward, Mobile, Alabama)
   Myers had played every position on the court at one time or another during his UALR career. He led the 1984-1985 team with 1,037 minutes played and was second in scoring (14.8 points) and rebounding (7.1 rebounds) and was named runner-up for the Trans-America Athletic Conference’s Newcomer of the Year.
   After a somewhat slow start, he averaged 17.6 points in conference play while leading the team in assists (109), steals (61), blocks (15) and free throw percentage (71.9 percent). And all that came while playing with stress fractures in his foot. Even hobbled at times, Myers didn’t miss a game during his junior season. He wore a knee brace on his left knee, but it rarely seemed to be a problem for him.
   Myers had skinny legs but a strong upper body. He was the type you might not even notice on the court. Then you’d look at the statistics and see that he just had 20 points and 10 rebounds and wonder how that was possible. He was solid defensively and handled the ball like a guard. He had a sweet turn-around jump shot and was a great free throw shooter most of the time.
   “Peter was really the person who wasn’t as high profile, but when the locker room doors were closed, Peter was the one who would stand up and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to do a better job on the boards’ or ‘we’ve got to hustle harder’ or ‘we’ve got to play our tails off,’” Dittman said.
- Michael Clarke (6-6, senior, forward, Mobile, Alabama)
   After transferring from Faulkner State, Clarke led UALR in scoring during his junior season at 18.8 points. He also was the team’s best rebounded, grabbing 10.5 per game. That still makes him one of only four players in school history to have averaged more than 10 rebounds per game during an entire season of NCAA Division I basketball. The other two were Muntrelle Dobbins (11.4, 1996-1997), Donald Newman (12.9, 1983-1984) and Rashad Jones-Jennings (11.3, 2005-2006). He was named second team All-TAAC and won the Newcomer of the Year award in 1985.
   “I try to base my game on going to the boards,” Clarke said. “I think when my teammates have an off night, it is my turn. I try to pick up the slack.”
   Clarke hit a 24-footer at the buzzer the previous year to beat Georgia Southern in the TAAC Tournament semifinals.
   He was listed at 6-feet, 6-inches, but was probably closer to 6-5. He had a muscular upper body and big thighs. He also had a big butt and wide hips and was very skilled at using them to hold off the opposition. Clarke also had extremely quick feet.
   Think Charles Barkley.
   “He was off the floor in a second,” Dittman said. “He got to balls quicker than a lot of 6-10 and 6-11 kids did. Not that he could out-jump them, he just got there quicker.”
That made him better suited as a low-post player, but he wanted to be a guard. And that could lead to clashes with the coaching staff.
   “Michael couldn’t stand underneath the basket and dunk it. But he was so big and so physical and he could jump just as high on his second, third, and fourth attempts,” Newell said.
   Clarke’s biggest problem was his free throw shooting, easily the worst on the team.
- Ken Worthy (6-4, senior, guard, Mobile, Alabama)
   As the senior point guard on the roster, it figured Worthy would be the catalyst for Trojan basketball during the 1985-1986 season. He started 10 games the previous year, before being slowed by an ankle injury, averaging 5.6 points.
   Worthy wasn’t just a point guard. He was a defensive specialist who Newell liked to use in different positions on the court. As the season went on, he played mostly the off guard spot, typically drawing the assignment of guarding the opposition’s best threat.
   Offensively, he was selective in shooting the ball. He preferred to swing it inside to Myers or Clarke for easy baskets. And he was adept at finding them after they posted up, getting opposing defenders on their hip.
   Depending on the game, Worthy could get you 15 points, 12 rebounds or 10 assists. He was probably the most versatile player on the team.
   He was lanky and wore a brace on his right thigh. At times, he would grimace in obvious pain while holding the brace. Seconds later, he’d be back to full speed. His liability, like Clarke, was his free-throw shooting.
- Eddie Powell (6-5, junior, forward, Columbus, Georgia)
   Powell started only four games as a sophomore but still averaged almost 20 minutes per game. He finished as UALR’s third-leading rebounded (4.3 per game) and was the fifth-leading scorer (75 points per game). He spent one year at Kaskaskia Junior College in Columbus, Georgia, before transferring to UALR.
   He was a streak shooter who was a long-range bomber. He was deadly on the 17-to-20-foot jump shot.
- Daron Hoges (6-9 sophomore, center, Macon, Georgia)
   Hoges started four games at center as a freshman, but played sparingly, averaging 1.0 points and 1.1 rebounds. Hoges had potential, playing for the South team at the National Sports Festival over the summer. He was expected to be primarily a forward in the 1985-1986 season.
   “I visited his house, it was on a red-clay road. There weren’t even any street signs. When I pulled up I saw him leaving the house with a bucket to feed the chickens. Inside, he had one of those old-fashioned stoves that you lift the lid to put wood or coal in,” Newell said.
   Hoges got hurt in the preseason and ended up sitting out the 1985-1986 season as a medical red shirt.
   After losing in the finals of the TAAC Tournament in Newell’s first season at UALR, the second recruiting class had a lot of potential:
- Reggie Smith (6-8, junior, forward, Dallas, Texas)
   Newell knew he needed more experience on the inside and signed Smith out of Frank Phillips Junior College in Texas. But he got hurt during preseason workouts and it was feared he had cartilage damage in his right knee and would have to undergo arthroscopic surgery.
   The plan going into the season was to hold him out of practice for a few days to see if the swelling went down. Losing Smith entirely would be a major blow and they hoped to get something out of him.
   Smith attended Dallas South Oak Cliff High School before going to Frank Phillips.
- Robert Chase (6-3, sophomore, guard, Kansas City, Missouri)
   Chase as another candidate to take over the point guard duties as a transfer from Arizona Western Junior College. He was named Arizona’s junior college newcomer of the year after averaging 15 points and 9 assists on a team that finished 25-4. He was also named all-conference and all-region.
   He was originally from Kansas City and didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but he could be a solid assist man. He also had a 3.1 grade-point average, a definite bonus.
- Curtis Kidd (6-8, freshman, center, Detroit Michigan) and
- Paris McCurdy (6-7, freshman, center, Detroit Michigan)
   Newell wasn’t sold on Hoges and Smith at least in the long-term. He felt like he needed some big men to play on the inside with Clarke and Myers. He immediately targeted one.
   Curtis Kidd was a 6-foot-8 high school player out of Detroit, Michigan’s Cooley High School, the same school that had produced Roy Tarpley. Doing early research on him, they found out Kidd’s best friend was high school teammate Paris McCurdy, who was 6-feet-7 inches but not quite as talented.
   McCurdy averaged 17 points and 12 rebounds but was one of those kids you really had to watch for a while to appreciate all the little things he did on the court. He was smart and really understood the game. The more they watched Kidd, the more they noticed McCurdy.
   “He wouldn’t blow you away with his jumping ability or any of those other things. He was just a great blue-collar worker for us,” Dittman said.
   They decided to do what many other programs wouldn’t, take both. Ultimately, they’d have to beat out Missouri to get Kidd.
   Missouri had all the Motor City connections led by assistant coach Rich Daly,, who was earning the nickname “Doctor Detroit” for his ability to land high-profile recruits.
   The 1990 book Raw Recruits alleged that Daly offered Detroit Cooley High School Coach Ben Kelso $20,000 to influence recruit Daniel Lyton to sign with Missouri. Those allegations were never proven and the Missouri program was only cited for failure to maintain institutional control.
   Regardless, Daly and Missouri were successful. They signed Lynn Hardy, Lee Coward, John McIntyre, Nathan Buntin and Doug Smith during the mid-1980s.
   “They were getting three or four kids a year from Detroit. I mean really quality kids,” Dittman said.
   The UALR plan was to get McCurdy to convince Kidd to come to Little Rock.
   “I knew Paris was the leader and Curtis was the follower,” Newell said. “After we signed Paris early, he pretty much signed Curtis for us.”
   McCurdy could bench press 280 pounds and did between 150 and 200 push-ups each day.
   “I’m strong and I can play that position like [Newell] wants it to be played. I thought a center had to be real tall and jump real well. I’m not tall and I can’t jump, but I can get in position,” he said.
   If you need any indication of how good an athlete McCurdy was, he joined the National Football League’s Denver Broncos after his college basketball career was over, attempting to make the team as a linebacker. He didn’t make it, but no doubt it wasn’t because of his toughness.
   “Paris really understood the game well and he was a playmaker,” Dittman said. “He did a lot of things defensively in the paint, a lot of rebounding for us.”
   McCurdy also had a unique style of shooting free throws during which he’d hold up the ball, hesitate, and then let it go. He drew an opposing player into the lane several times each game. And that was important, because he’d frequently miss that one and then come back and make the bonus shot.
   “Paris is the only 25 percent free-throw shooter in America who is hitting 80 percent,” UALR Assistant Coach Jim Calvin said.
- Dean Severn (6-1, freshman, guard, Rockton, Illinois)
   Severn was probably best known as the white guy on the roster. With his Newell-like blonde hair, he definitely stood out on the court with his teammates.
   He played for Rockton Hononegah High School, which finished 19-7 during his senior year. He finished the state playoffs that season with the state’s highest scoring average of 24.5 points. He was one of three freshmen brought in to compete for the point guard position.
- Keith Campbell (6-3, freshman, guard, Memphis, Tennessee)
   Campbell was the prototypical Memphis point guard out of Ridgeway High School. He was quick and could handle the ball.
   He could also dunk with style. Newell sometimes called him “Show Campbell.” He was flashy and in the preseason won a four-way battle for the point guard spot. Keeping it would be another matter.
- Paul Springer (6-1, freshman, guard, Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Springer was probably less flash but the had quickness out of Northrup High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The 25-footer was out of his range, but the 12-to-15-footer wasn’t. That’s a bit surprising because he was only a 57 percent free-throw shooter. He was unable to beat out Campbell in the preseason and struggled to get any playing time early on.
   “I pretty much loved the weather, the people were nice and the food was great,” Springer said.
- Michael Covington (6-10, junior, center, Decatur, Georgia)
   Covington was originally from the Chicago area before playing in Decatur, Illinois. He came to UALR from Henderson County Junior College in Texas, but had to sit out one year under NCAA Transfer rules.
   He was slated to become eligible after the fall semester and was being counted on as the team’s inside presence.
- Also
   Valparaiso transfer Rick Pickren, 6-8, was sitting out under NCAA transfer rules, while Indiana seven-footer Phil Lamson, from Logansport, never made it to UALR. Pickren was named to the Mid-Continent Conference’s All-Newcomer team after the 1984 season.
   The coaching staff was made up of assistant head coach Calvin, Robert Kirby, Dittman, and former UALR player Tom Brown.
   “We were driven hard by Coach Newell and the other coaches. And the younger players -- we had a lot of freshmen -- they just wanted to come in and play their role. Nobody wanted to come in and take all the attention or anything,” Clarke said. “They just wanted to ride the ship and they were the passengers. That’s what made this team so special.”

Tomorrow: UALR finds early season success